Friday, May 30, 2008

The Mouse that went to the Moon

I love a good underdog story, and in the past the Ansari X Prize (for sub-orbital space flight), and now the Google X Prize (for lunar landing) have both excited my interest. The little guys try to do what it took NASA billions of dollars and a tragic number of lives to achieve.

A few months ago (Sept 2007) Bob X. Cringely (my favourite computing & tech. blogger) announced the formation of Team Cringely to attempt to get a lunar rover to the moon within 18 months (by 1st April 2009), and for only $5million. Fantastic!

Now Bob says they're not going to bother with competing for the X Prize after all, but here's the good news: they're still going to the Moon, only this time they're going to send 24, yes, twenty-four rovers! The man is either mad, a genius, or a mad genius! Now, of course, they're free of the X Prize rules - which, if Bob's comments are anything to go by, are pretty weird - and are real pirate underdogs. The result:

Comment 1:
If you place a micro-dot on one of the rovers with the names of my kids on it ( I have 3) I'm in for a 1000.00. Sell 999 more and you have 20% of your budget! Cheers and good luck. Mike
Comment 3:
Now yur talkin - how do I donate a few bucks to the cause?
Seems I'm not the only one to think Cringely et. al. have done the right thing. All power to you and team, Bob!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The FIA General Assembly

The forthcoming meeting of the FIA General Assembly (on June 3rd) cannot come soon enough. Max Mosley vs. News of the World privacy case does not signify - regardless of the outcome of those court proceedings, and any claims of entrapment, the truth of the BDSM habits of Mosley is clear. He did participate in the activities claimed (and videod).

Consequently, Mosley's position as the chief representative and primary authority figure within the FIA is severely compromised. He is simply not the right figure for the job, especially given his father and mother.

It is time that the FIA voting members stood up to Max and his cronies, and cleaned out the house. And forget about ever appointing Jean Todt in his place. His pro-Ferrari bias is even more obvious than Max's! Perhaps Gerhard Berger (despite his Ferrari-driving past) would be a better choice. have a similar post on this subject.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Broadcast vs. Communication

It seems that most of the mainstream media companies (Viacom, Disney, NBC, CNN, etc) think the internet is a broadcast medium. They put stuff up on their pages, users just consume their pap, just like TV, with very little control other than the channel, or the big red button (the ultimate choice not to bother). They want to control how that material is seen, and prevent anyone from using it in any other way. But immediately, everyone that views it gets a local copy (with the exception of streamed stuff) in their browser if not their cache too. It's not just an ephemeral signal, here now, gone now.

In contrast, the web is, and always has been, a communications medium. I put stuff up (like this blog), you can consume it if you like, but (and it's a big but) you can put up a response of your own, without need for any more license than I. Your response can be a comment here, or in your own space; a blog, a forum, a web-page, on IRC, or some new medium I don't know about yet, or have forgotten about.

Of course, the internet goes much further than the web: email, nntp, gopher (are there any gopher servers left?), ftp, and many more protocols not normally visible to mere mortals like you or I.

The future of the internet as a (reasonable democratic) communications medium depends upon the 'long tail' standing up to the big media companies, the organisations representing them directly (RIAA, MPAA, BPI, I'm looking at you), and those that don't officially (national governments, I'm looking at you!) to ensure that the internet remains a domain of free expression for the exchange and development of ideas.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Addendum on Everest Death Wishes

If you're sat a Everest Base Camp, looking up at the summit region and you see the kind of weather shown in this video, you don't leave Base Camp, unless you and your entire climbing team have a Death Wish.
And the first thing you do on a day when you're looking to climb from Base Camp to the summit is to check with the local meteorologists as to what weather conditions to expect later in the day - and if they indicate that the weather at the summit is going to be the kind of weather shown in the video above, you don't leave Base Camp, unless you and your entire climbing team have a Death Wish.
And if you're part way up Everest and discover you've been let down by some stupid meteorologists, and discover that you're in the kind of weather shown in the video above, you head straight back to Base Camp, unless you and your entire climbing team have a Death Wish.
Were the entire climbing team involved in the fake Chinese ascent of Everest with the Olympic Torch a bunch of suicide cases? Or are they just too afraid of the Chinese security services...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Microhoo! Round Two

The loudest merger of 2008, Microsoft and Yahoo rumbles on. Round One may be over, with Microsoft having withdrawn their bid, now that Yahoo have asked for $37 per share (rather than the $33 Microsoft were offering) but now we have Round Two. Ding! Ding!

The Yahoo shareholders wade into the ring... this is beginning to sound like a WWF tag match!

Eric Jackson (Ironfire Capital, Yahoo shareholder), from the BBC article on this subject, said, "Yahoo's stock has essentially been flat for the last four years while the market has gone up over 30% and Google has gone up 440%. So the comparisons are stark and the board has not been doing its job."

And what is the job of the Yahoo board? To service customers? To bring more eyes to their advertisers' properties and increase their sales? To encourage discourse and the development of the Web into a globally available, multi-cultural resource for the furtherance of humankind?

No! The only legal responsibility of the board, in a public company is "to increase shareholder value." Baldly put, make the rich investors richer.

Guess what, selling Yahoo to Microsoft at $33 a share (the offer from Microsoft) would garner roughly $44.6bn to be split between the current share holders, assuming MS buys all the shares to achieve the takeover. That's an awful lot of 'shareholder value' that's locked up in the company. Ah, but there's the key.... it's locked up in the company, and the corporate vulture set can't get their grubby little mitts on it, unless MS buys Yahoo from them, at a 70% premium over the price at the time of the offer ($19.18) ! The actual trading price on the NASDAQ of Yahoo shares leapt a staggering 48% on the day of the bid (1st Feb 2008) to $28.38. Even now, 3 months later, with Microsoft's bid withdrawn, the stock price is still in the mid- to upper-$20 range. Boo hoo! I want my money back!

Never mind the serious lack of similarity between Microsoft and Yahoo. One uses a lot of real computers, the other is Microsoft. One has a search engine that has some market share, the other has a search engine nobody uses. I'd never even bothered to look at Microsoft's Live Search until researching this post! And now I find that the results pages look like a direct rip-off of the Google pages. I guess Microsoft does love Google after all, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that. Anyway, along with many other commentators, I don't see what possible synergies there are between Microsoft and Yahoo that could outweigh the massive organisational paralysis and technical nightmares that a merger would cause.

Finally, a final note from the BBC article on this subject: "In 2006 [Carl Icahn (another major Yahoo investor)] unsuccessfully pushed for the break up of Time Warner. In a recent interview on America's 60 Minutes programme he said: 'Maybe I made a mistake, but I made $300m on it. So is that so bad?'" Well, if your motivation is purely personal enrichment then, no, that wasn't so bad. Damn the consequences, good or bad.

It would clear my mortgage anyway.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Myst IV Revelation

Originally posted at GameBoomers:

What is it?
The sequel to the sequel (Exile) to the sequel (Riven) of Myst! Just like Exile, this is a point-n-click adventure, in full screen, 360 degree bubbles. Chronologically, this game comes after Exile; Yeesha, the baby at the beginning of Exile, is now a bright, engaging 10-year old, and Atrus (played, once again, by Rand Miller, CEO of Cyan Worlds) is starting to show some age, with a distinguished display of greying hair and beard.

Okay, I have to come clean, right from the start. I've been a fan of the Myst games since 1993. So, you can imagine the sense of excitement and anticipation I felt when a certain package arrived on my doormat! I've been really good this time. I've not looked at the preview screen shots, I've assiduously avoided any Myst-related threads on adventure forums; I know next to nothing about Myst IV Revelation. Until now....

Where does it come from?
Again, like Exile, this game was not written, nor developed by Cyan (the originators of the Myst story) however the first "ident" movie is the wonderful Cyan one that sends shivers down my spine!

This game was developed for UbiSoft by Team Revelation, under license (and with artistic and plot oversight) from Cyan. Development of the project started well before Exile was complete, and you can tell from the quality of the game that it has taken all this time to produce. There's just so much in it. It comes with two whole DVDs of resources -- giving an 8GB (yes, eight gigabytes) full install. Even the minimum install is a whopping 3.5GB!

Is there a plot?
Of course... it's a Myst game! Atrus introduces the story by telling us that his sons, Sirrus and Achenar, weren't killed at the end of Myst (as some people had supposed) but remained trapped. Now we find out how Atrus and his family -- Catherine, his wife, and Yeesha, their lively (roughly) 10 year old daughter -- have dealt with the situation. You're invited to help out.

Those sons of his seem to have been the bane of Atrus's existence, providing the plot and motivation for three out of the five Myst games so far.

This is also the second Myst game to have its plot written by Mary DeMarle. She also wrote the story for Exile, to such good effect, and this one is similarly excellent, fitting the canon of Myst-lore well.

How do you play?
Starting in Tomahna (Atrus's family's home), you solve puzzles, fix machinery, go on wild rides, decode texts & sounds, etc, in four Ages. The Ages are spectacular, but I don't want to spoil any surprises for anyone. So I'll just say that the Ages are bigger, more elaborate and more fully realized than anything in Exile. Riven only rivals this by dint of it being set almost entirely in one Age, rather than four. On a personal note, I have to say that Tomahna is my favourite Age in this game; I could live there myself.

Navigation is simple, being entirely mouse driven. The customisable hand cursor is used throughout, making smoothly animated transitions between idle, pointing, grasping and touching forms. You can change the colour, transparency, and handedness of the cursor in the Options menu. A nice touch, enabling you to control how visible your cursor is.

Hotspots are rarely difficult to find - there's no pixel hunting here. Controls on machinery are clear in their location, if not their function. But then the game wouldn't be true to the Myst genre if Atrus's mechanical wonders were obvious in their layout.

The Puzzles don't interrupt game play and plot...they're essential to progressing the story. They're not just in the style of "here's a fancy puzzle-lock, you don't get to see the Treasure Chamber until you can figure out this sliding tiles game". There are some very novel puzzles right from the get-go. And the final puzzle is a complete doozy!

Just so you know, there are no mazes, nor sliding blocks, but there are sound puzzles and a timed sequence.

Notable Features
The live acting is excellent. Rand Miller is the *only* person who can play Atrus, much as he'd like to escape the role! Yeesha (Juliette Gosselin) is lovely. Sirrus and Achenar were played by Rand and Robin Miller in Myst, and are now played by Brian Wench, (a US TV actor) and Guy Sprung (a Canadian TV actor). Both are excellent, bringing back to life those two apparent psychopaths from the first game with great flair and enjoyable characterisation.

Technically, the live action sequences are integrated very, very well with the pre-rendered elements, animated environment, and real-time effects. Characters interact with objects, pass through doorways accurately, and show up as distant glimpses through intervening structures very smoothly. There's a great sense of the characters being real within this world.

Inevitably, I have to gush glowing praise for the graphics in Myst IV. Every time we have a new Myst game, I am astounded by the leaps forward made by the development teams, be they Cyan themselves, Presto (Exile) or Team Revelation. The Ages are stylish, intricate, beautiful (in their own ways), and fantastically brought to life by the optional immersive features. Even without the optional material, there is life in the environment, with moving water, animated insects, lightning, wind and wildlife. However, if you turn on the optional effects, the overall picture is stunning. To take Tomahna for example, the trees move in the wind, the waterfall is shrouded in mist (not myst, sic!), smoke rises from the kitchen, birds and insects flutter around the vegetation and scattered leaves blow in the breeze.

This game really is a tour de force in world realisation and photo-realistic environments!

As with Exile, the music for Myst IV was composed by Jack Wall. I've always found his material beautiful, haunting, dramatic, and brilliantly applied. He has linked this game stylistically and thematically to the earlier games, without just re-using Robyn Miller's material. There's also a song by Peter Gabriel (who also composed music for Uru: Ages of Myst), which fits in very well where it comes. No spoiler intended.

Any other novelties?
ALIVE technology - most objects and surfaces within range of your hand can be touched to find out what they sound like - walls, books, glass windows, plants, equipment; all sorts of things. Some objects can be used without appearing to have any true part in the game -- lovely extra colour, to bring you deeper into the game. This addresses one of the longest held gripes of many point-n-click adventurers; the fact that the game environments almost always include many objects about which the user is curious, but can never actually explore (for example, in Syberia, all those 1st floor doors in the hotel in Valadilene that went nowhere).

The game also allows you to have objects take on a degree of soft focus based upon their distance from the user. I must say that I really didn't like this feature, and turned it off as soon as I discovered it was optional. I like my world to be as clear as possible; I can get all the blurred images I could possibly ever wish for, if I take my glasses off.

There's the built-in hint system, using hints from Prima (publishers of the Strategy Guide for Myst IV, amongst many other guides). Level I, II, and III hints provide gentle nudges, pointed clues, and complete instructions for the various puzzles. There is a warning every time the hint system is about to reveal more information (almost every click whilst using the hints). This gets annoying very quickly. Yes, I know using this hint may "affect my gaming experience". Enough already!

Part way into the game, you obtain an amulet of memories that is used to give plot and character developing colour, especially by allowing the player to hear the characters read out the contents of their various journals. This makes absorbing the information in the journals a much more enjoyable aspect of the game than it has been in previous Myst games.

A camera may not be a novelty to adventure gamers anymore. There was one in Timelapse and many other games since. But the Myst IV camera is one of the most useful ever. We all know how difficult it is to take good graphical notes for Myst games; the clues can be so subtle. Well, the camera and viewer (with its note taking function too) make taking notes so much easier, it's almost simple to use Atrus's crystal viewer. Not too simple of course, because the clues are hand drawn, but still, much easier than puzzling out clues copied down late at night by someone who's own drawing skills leave much to be desired!

I'm sorry to say that my playing of Myst IV was marred by a number of bugs.

First of all, there's a compatibility issue with ATI Radeon cards (7000, 7500 and in my experience 9000 too) where the 3D environment is masked out by sandy squares. However, UbiSoft have a fix for this on their support site; a modification to a configuration file.

Secondly, the game has periodic crashes to the desktop. The game never crashed my PC, but did quit suddenly at a number of places, and never reproducibly, making it very hard to diagnose the cause. Therefore, save often; but this leads to the third problem I suffered.

As you accumulate save games, the menus get slower and slower. So either limit yourself to, say, ten save slots, or find the save directory and move save files out of the way, or periodically delete old saves from within the Load Game menu.

In a nutshell: magnificent! This is my favourite Myst game yet. There are the awesome Ages, with perilous heights, stunning scenery, fantastical creatures. We get plenty of lifts, cable car rides, amazing machines, intriguing and challenging puzzles.

Flies in the ointment: blurry focus (can be turned off), massive full install, virtual CD/DVD check, and graphical problems that weren't completely solved until I'd finished the game. It's a shame that after three years of development, there are still issues in the game. These issues, including the save game slow-down and repeated crashes to desktop, contribute to a slight tarnish on the overall product. I'll be betraying my fan-dom of the Myst games by saying that I was willing to work around the issues, and have been able, I feel, to see the gold underneath.

Grade: A-

A patch solving the issues mentioned above would convert this into an A+.

What do you need to play it?
Minimum Requirements
• 700 MHz Pentium(r) III or AMD Athlon(tm) or better
• 32 MB DirectX(r) 9-compliant video card (800x600 display)
• 128 MB RAM (256 MB required for XP)
• 3.5 GB free hard disk space
• 4x DVD or faster
• DirectX 9.0-compliant sound card
• Windows(r) 98SE/2000/ME/XP with DirectX 9.0c (included on DVD)

Recommended Requirements
• Pentium(r) IV or AMD Athlon(tm)
• 64Mb or more DirectX(r) 9-compliant video card (800x600 display)
• 256 MB RAM
• 8.0 GB free hard disk space

(I used Win XP, AMD XP 2400, 512 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 9000 Pro 128 AGP)

Thursday, May 08, 2008


China claims that the Olympic torch has been taken to the summit of Mount Everest.

First question : why?

Second question: what distinguishes the location shown in this video from any windy, snowy, rocky, slightly elevated, location in any part of China?

Third question: why is there no evidence of breathing equipment on the climbers? Oxygen support is required for all but the most extreme mountaineers at the summit of Mount Everest.

Answer One, Two and Three : they didn't do it.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Streisand Effect Strikes Again

I find it quite amazing the number of people who fall for this lawyer-dream-cum-true behaviour where some offended party chooses to sue an internet site for libel or defamation or just to get them to pull particular content. Many people have done this, but every time they do, all they get is a bloody nose and a whole lot of publicity they never wanted in the first place... example: Barbara Bauer is a literary agent and somebody doesn't like her. So instead of just telling their friends and neighbours not to use her services (perhaps they don't have any friends or neighbours who're in the market for literary agencies?), they created a page on Wikipedia to describe her. Now, that page kept on being restored and deleted, and it actually appears to have survived for 10 months from May 2007 to March 2008 (wiki deletion log).

So Ms Bauer decides she doesn't like this, so she's suing Wikipedia. No, not the author of the defamatory article; Wikipedia. It's about time somebody at whatever passes for a Bar Council or a Law Society in the States needs to hit the entire legal profession upside the head with a big clue stick. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) means you cannot sue the service provider (in this case Wikipedia) for what their members chose to post. I'm sure there's something in the US Constitution on the subject too!

So Ms. Bauer, welcome to the Streisand Effect. You make an ill-aimed fuss about something you want kept quiet, and what happens? Everyone hears about whatever it is you want kept quiet. Me? I'd never heard of you. Now? I'm left with the impression (rightly or wrongly) that you're a poor literary agent with a penchant for scatter-gun litigation. Sure sounds professional to me!

What's worse is that you'll now go down in history (via Google's indexes, Yahoo! indexes, MSN Live Search indexes (maybe), Altavista, not to mention the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive) in that way, but not at Wikipedia because not only have they deleted the article, no-one can create an article with that name any more.

Note: the Wayback Machine will have articles about the Wikipedia case, it doesn't actually have the Wikipedia article itself ... at least I couldn't find it. I'm not sure which is worse in terms of publicity: an article few people are likely to read, or many many articles of opinion scattered across the 'net, based upon journalist's reporting of the case. So we may all be quite wrong.

Scratch that. I do know: Ms Bauer, the correct way to handle this would have been by a simple appeal to the administrators of Wikipedia. Only an idiot involves lawyers where a simple email would more than likely have sufficed.